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Old drainage tunnel sparking fears of failure in Leadville

Record snow pack exacerbates danger, officials say

A blocked mine drainage tunnel in Leadville has been a festering problem for years, but officials have now declared the site a state of emergency because more snow in the mountains has elevated the risk of a major catastrophe.



At issue is a 1.5 billion-gallon pool of acidic mine runoff that is dammed behind cave-ins in a 1940s-era drainage tunnel. The tunnel is owned and operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The fear is that pressure from the building body of water could result in a major water release. “We are concerned that if there is enough pressure, it will blow,” said Sonya Pennock, an official from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Pennock says a release of the toxic water could foul miles of the Arkansas River. More worrisome, according to Pennock, is the possibility a massive release would threaten Leadville residents who live below the mine tunnel. “It could potentially be catastrophic,” she said.
A press release from the Lake County Board of Commissioners likens the potential situation to the 1976 Teton Dam disaster, in which a Bureau of Reclamation dam collapsed in southeastern Idaho, killing 14 people.
Moreover, the press release states that because 10,000 gallons of sodium hydroxide and 10,000 gallons of sulfuric acid are stored at the mine tunnel, the potential for massive poisoning exists. “We have elements of Bhopal, India and the Teton Dam and the Summitville Mine in Colorado all rolled into one,” the press release states.
Contaminated water is already seeping out of new springs in the surrounding area, according to officials. Lake County Commissioner Ken Olsen says the untreated water could contaminate Leadville’s water wells.
The water is draining into the tunnel from old mine-works and melting snow, according to Pennock.
According to Pennock, officials from several federal and state agencies including the EPA and the Bureau of Reclamation are meeting in Leadville on February 19 to come up with a short-term plan of action to alleviate the danger.
Still, she said, a lasting solution must be figured out. “We don’t want people to lose sight of the fact that a long-term plan is necessary,” she said.
High Country Citizens’ Alliance (HCCA) mineral resources director Bob Salter stressed that the situation in Leadville is unique, and there are few similarities between the blocked drainage tunnel in Lake County and mining activity in Gunnison County.
While Salter said there is a bulkhead holding water back in the Keystone mine, there is no indication of danger from a sudden release of contaminated water. Still, he said HCCA wants to know more about the bulkhead and the nature of the water behind it.
According to Salter, any time there is mining activity that drills into ground water, the potential of contaminated water escaping into the watershed exists, which is one of the reasons HCCA is concerned about the proposed Lucky Jack mine. He said usually during the mining activity, excess water is controlled. “It’s usually more of a problem after a period of inactivity, or abandonment,” he said, using the Leadville situation as an example.
Salter said Lake County was facing a severe problem and he hoped officials would act expediently to solve it. “Leadville is in a unique and very bad situation, and we hope the government acts to address it,” he said.
During a Crested Butte Town Council meeting on Tuesday, February 19, Crested Butte resident Bonnie Farnell suggested that the Town Council sign a resolution in support of Leadville as it deals with the issue. She noted that both towns are positioned downstream from abandoned mine sites. “I’m asking the town to show leadership, show solidarity with a neighbor in need,” she said. “I think it would give community members an outlet to reach out and make a difference.”
Crested Butte mayor Alan Bernholtz noted that Crested Butte and Leadville have differing opinions on mining proposals in their respective communities. However, he said he’d be willing to show support. “I think it’s probably a good idea…we want to support a town that’s in a bad way,” he said.
The Town Council will consider a resolution supporting Leadville at an upcoming meeting. 

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